Friday, September 8, 2017

Logan Lucky

Within Logan Lucky the film itself gives you the most succinct description of what it is: Ocean's Seven-Eleven. Steven Soderbergh returns to the comedy heist genre replacing Las Vegas with West Virginia, the equivalent of a casino on boxing night being a big Nascar race at a track, and instead of a swanky pair of slick criminals we have a couple of lovable, white-trash brothers who you should not underestimate. While not as innovative and novel in style as his original foray into this type of movie, I'm glad Soderberg's back with Logan Lucky.

One of the things I think Lucky might have over Ocean's 11 are the main performances, though not by much. Clooney and Pitt are undeniable talents, and the ensemble of the Ocean's films made those instant classics. Here the key players really stand out, as well. I think a big part of it is the innocence Adam Driver and Channing Tatum bring respectively to the roles of Clyde and Jimmy Logan, a pair of brothers from a family everyone says is cursed. After losing his job Jimmy is fed up and frustrated as he tries to make ends meet enough to be able to spend time with his little daughter every other weekend, fearful that the influence of his ex-wife (Katie Holmes) and her wealthy husband are having on her. Apparently not surprised by his brother's ideas, Clyde settles in to hear Jimmy out on his hair-brained idea. They both use the southern accent to their benefit, drawing you into their welcoming, unassuming demeanor. They're teachable even as they have some secrets and tricks up their sleeve that, much like the Ocean's trilogy before, you don't get the full scope of until the end. While any heist movie certainly has to have some amazing set-pieces and a keen ability for misdirection, it is a good sign that you can enjoy the movie even if you don't fully understand what happens at the climax.

While certainly not an impeccable motion picture, Logan Lucky  packs a punch with its comedy. Tatum plays the straight man and while his little girl is sweet, Driver as Clyde is a relief with his dry sensitivity, and the prosthetic arm is used to full effect. At the end you may not wholly understand every aspect of the job but the laughs are what keep you interested in what is a surprisingly breezy 2 hours. A lot of fun characters fill out the gang but especially delightful is Daniel Craig as Joe Bang, along with his two less-than-bright younger siblings. The brothers require a moral justification before they can commit a crime, though any novice in the art of spin should be able to concoct a noble cause simple enough to get these guys on board. Riley Keough rounds out the main players as Tatum's & Driver's kid sister, on board to break the family's run of luck. On the villain side, Dwight Yoakam as a corruptible prison warden and Hillary Swank as a silently terrifying FBI agent both dig into their roles, obviously enjoying themselves.

Soderbergh has famously been in "retirement" from filmmaking. Really it was a hiatus and he has been very busy with other things like TV (The Knick) and any number of other projects which you can read about on his website. The funny thing is that it's only been four years since his last directorial feature, 2013's HBO film Behind The Candelabra. That's the normal lag-time between projects for many directors but Soderbergh has always been efficient and prolific. When he won his Oscar for Best Directing for Traffic he had double the chances of winning as he was also nominated for Erin Brokovich the same year. He's said that he gets his work ethic from his father and his artistic interests from his mother. That's the perfect combination for a director, especially if you're a Hollywood studio exec. Except the difficulties and dwindling resources of that business are what lead to his stepping away. Hopefully at this point he's come to peace with that and found a way to do it that means we'll get more from him sooner rather than later.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017


Cameraperson is a memoir film from documentary cinematographer Kirsten Johnson. She took moments from throughout her 25 years behind the camera for other people's films and created this movie that summarizes her experience, using her visual perspective to talk about who she is and how she sees life. Rather than a linear storyline, the film organizes scenes around themes that express the range of joy and pain unique to her job and life. Just as a camerperson can choose exactly where to focus on an image to say something without words, Cameraperson uses a lifetime of filming to say something unique and beautiful without having to actually say anything at all.

Like so many of the best documentaries, this is a personal film. What makes this unique is that Johnson has these vignettes recorded from throughout her career where she is focusing on something outside of herself that when you pull together, using specific pieces, tell a lot about who she is. Johnson uses her own natural visual eye - always through her camera - to tell the story on its own without any direct narrative or description. She had originally created a more direct cut with voiceovers, focusing on the most traumatic and moving things she's captured. Eventually, though, Johnson and her team relied on the visuals to speak for themselves, using shots and scenes, juxtaposed in meaningful ways, to create a deeper meaning than you could ever really explain using words. More importantly is how the little bits they choose to use key into who she is without showing her at all.

Nels Bangerter, Editor for Cameraperson, was tasked with starting the process anew a few years into the project by taking several disk drives' worth of video and paring it down to tell a story. Rather than show some of the most objectively significant or traumatic things she'd shot, he focused specifically on the moments where we are aware of her presence, though rarely when we see her onscreen. Normally, a camerperson's directive is to go unnoticed, allowing the subject to be the focus rather than the person behind the camera. He said, "We began to realize that these tiny moments on the edges of other films is where her presence comes from...In essence we were making a very thoughtful, emotional, and revealing outtake reel." The mechanism by which this is done is often simple yet ingenious, like the short montage of many quick moments of Johnson walking with a camera, often backwards, and attempting to follow one or more subjects. Or a supercut of the moments where people realize they're being filmed. The observations are often weightier and become more personal as the movie progresses, her mother's experience with Alzheimer's and then eventual death playing a big role.

Using the visuals to tell the story leaves a bit more mystery in the film and allows us as the audience to arrive at conclusions on our own. At times Johnson uses the voices of her own subjects to comment on and share her feelings. For example, during a heart-wrenching scene in a Nigerian hospital we spend a few minutes watching a midwife work with a baby struggling to breathe. We then cut to an entirely separate sequence, distinct in date and time, of a man reflecting on having relived an intense moment of his past. He comments on how he can feel that emotion again so readily when he's not expecting it. While this is interesting, it becomes clear why we're watching it when we jump directly back to the hospital in Nigeria. Johnson is using his words to express how she feels watching and thinking about that baby and that hospital. And then, in the more meta context of Cameraperson, how these stories and experiences affect her life and stick with her. By showing us these principles, rather than telling us, we feel what she feels more readily just as we see what she sees through the camera. It's a brilliant way to communicate, even more so because when we as the audience make the realization on our own we may even jump to our own personal experiences and connect the idea directly to our own reality. And that's how storytelling like this can make an impact.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Pather Panchali

Pather Panchali, translated as song for the little road, is a simple, heartbreaking story of a poor Bengali family. Like most families, money is their biggest concern, although the mother and father seem to feel differently as to what degree. The mother is mostly left alone to care for her daughter, son, and an old aunt. She feels the pains of their poverty most potently as her husband, a self-declared poet whose ideas rarely come to fruition, is often gone for weeks at a time or more looking for work. Although this is the first in what became known as the Apu trilogy following the life of the young boy, in this film he is mostly observer of the women around him who struggle to live together. They clash in the natural ways that young girls often do with their mothers or a woman might with extended family living as not-so-welcome house guests. There are moments of relief along with some moments of terrible tragedy. These are problems faced regularly by families in almost any culture but here the consequences are, at times, more severe.

Along with displaying the reality of the relatable drama of life, director Satyajit Ray takes the time to explore and follow the digressions of life that always surround us, even amidst turmoil. Siblings argue constantly but just as easily reconcile and play. Neighbors and friends stop by and help but also add obstacles and make demands. The camera is especially descriptive as it focuses on small details, both mundane and divine. He's not afraid to sit and watch insects on the surface of the water or a pond of water lilies. Whether in the home or out in the jungle as children play, it's all very natural. The eye for beautiful frames is a great example of raw talent combined with beginner's luck and a clear purpose overcoming a complete lack of experience on the part of almost all the cast and crew. Although he's not as central to the drama, the bright-eyed boy Apu reminds us that children aren't fully aware of the extenuating circumstances that make up their lives and are always just themselves, finding it as easy to complain as to forgive.

It often happens that when you experience something personally groundbreaking that's contemporary to you, you imagine it's ideas are novel and innovative. Then, as you go through life you realize an earlier work did it first and better and your respect for that initial artifact diminishes in accomplishment, if not in its personal impact: "There is nothing new under the sun." An example of this is the Charlie Kaufman-written film Adaptation, directed by Spike Jonze. The movie is the story of itself. It follows its own screenwriter attempting to adapt a nonfiction memoir on orchid thieves for the big screen. As you watch you feel it is being written and produced before your eyes. Years later, in making my way through come of the cinema greats I would come to watch Fellini's masterpiece 8 1/2, a story of an acclaimed director attempting to come up with and produce his next feature only to end up creating a movie about the process itself. I learned Fellini did it first and best. This is all a meandering way to say that Ray's debut film Pather Panchali is the spiritual ancestor to Richard Linklater's longsuffering 2012 film Boyhood. Although I love that film, as with Fellini, Ray did it first and best.

This film, while not purposefully ambitious to the degree that Linklater's 12 year-long production was, it's struggles to get financing coming in starts and stops meant filming took place over three years. This meant big risks in relying on key cast members to be continually available, especially those so young and old as some of the key players here. More importantly than the logistics, though, Pather Panchali is similar in how sits in the life of a family. I laughed as the wife mentions home repairs that keep getting pushed back while the husband requests she look at life more positively even as he ignores the problems he's avoiding. The results of his procrastination have some devastating effects. But many of these scenes ring quite true to some that have played out in my own home. Undoubtedly some aspect of this movie will do the same for you.